There I was, minding my own business, when suddenly this man approached me. He stood in front of me and without so much as a by your leave, stuck his hand right down my trousers. Now, this happened a long time ago, and before you ask, no it wasn’t an MP. At least I don’t think it was. No, it happened in a gay bar called BRIEF ENCOUNTER in St Martin’s Lane. It’s no longer there. This was my first visit to an establishment of that nature. I was petrified. Would I be recognised? What if someone spread the word that I was, well, gay? It was 1990, after all. This bar was on two levels. On street level it was jam packed with drinkers, virtually all male. Downstairs it was darker and more of a pickup joint. Lots of furtive looks were exchanged. I just stood there, sipping on my vodka and orange, mildly fascinated by what was going on. And then it happened. I suppose it was a novel alternative to asking “do you come here often?”
Was I shocked? Undoubtedly. Did I feel violated? Well, mildly, I suppose, but I had placed myself in an environment where I suppose this sort of thing was almost par for the course. All I remember is removing the hand and saying (rather hilariously) “I don’t think so”. Had this happened in a work environment I would have no doubt felt differently and been completely horrified. Had it happened during the two and a half years I worked in Parliament it might have scarred me in ways I cannot now comprehend.
When I first worked as a researcher (OK, more of a glorified secretary) in the Commons back in 1985 to 1987 I was very naïve. I worked in the next office to Caroline Edmondson, who has hit the headlines this week with her allegations about Mark Garnier. At that point, I had girlfriends. I had a relationship with a Commons Secretary. I genuinely cared for her, but in the end, it was all a front. I knew I was gay but hadn’t ever acted on it. And didn’t do so until I was 28. And if that chance encounter hadn’t happened, I might well have become one of those pitiful men who get married and have children while knowing all along that their real sexual interest lies elsewhere. And believe me, there are a lot of them about.
So, what’s the point of this anecdote? I suppose it is to say that we all react in a very different way to forms of sexual harassment. For some, a mild touch on the knee is an outrageous breach of their personal space and can be something that’s deeply upsetting. For others they can brush it off without a second thought and just get on with their lives. Neither reaction is right or wrong. It just proves that we all have different reactions and deal with things differently.
The problem is that there are some men (and it’s usually men, it has to be said, although I do know of situations where women are the transgressors) who believe that if you approach ten women and signal that you’re after sex, one in ten will agree. If you have the skin of a rhino and can deal with rejection, you probably regard a one in ten hit rate as worth the risk.
I don’t believe men who work in parliament and are any more dangerous in this regard than men in any other workplace. What I do believe is that they are more likely to get away with it and face few consequences for their actions because the personnel systems aren’t in place to deal with such behaviour. No one wants to create a workplace where a man fears asking a woman out for fear of being accused of harassment, but we also can’t tolerate a work environment where women feel they might as well not bother reporting incidents of workplace harassment because it will be swept under the carpet.
On Monday night I was on the phone to a cabinet minister when my phone pinged. A friend had sent me the full unredacted spreadsheet to which Labour supporters have now attached the hashtag #TorySleaze36. It made for some strange reading. It certainly had some surprises on it, but there were quite a few names listed who for the life of me I couldn’t see had done anything wrong. Justin Tomlinson, for example, was listed as dating his researcher. Wow. What a scandal. Not. There were quite a few others who were no doubt furious to see themselves listed. But there are plenty of others who are in for a very difficult few days. There are even one or two who, if the allegations are made public and they have no answers, could be forced out of parliament altogether. The newspapers are becoming more daring by the day and have started to name quite a few of the 36, even if they only print their pictures and a very mild version of the allegations against them. Their problem is that very few of these allegations involve anything that’s illegal – they’re the sort of allegations which emerged in the 1990s after John Major’s ‘Back to Basics’ speech, and now the newspapers have the opportunity to print them, even if it’s only in a redacted form. Naturally some of the more enthusiastic Labour supporters on social media seem to think this sort of thing only happens in the Tory Party. It happens in all parties and in all walks of life. The allegations of rape, made by Labour activist Bex Bailey and the antics of Labour MP Jared O’Mara rather give the lie to that. Oh, and the cabinet minister I was talking to? I rang him back to tell him he didn’t feature on the list. There was no audible sigh of relief.
The Bank of England seem to be acting as the Provisional Wing of the Remain campaign. Their latest intervention predicts a loss of 75,000 jobs in financial services if there is no Brexit deal. It’s being so cheerful as keeps ‘em going. Still, at least they didn’t go as far as the deluded head of the London Stock Exchange, Xavier Rolet who reckoned 200,000 jobs would go. FACT: JP Morgan have announced that instead of the 4,000 jobs they threatened to move to Paris, fewer than 1,000 would now be created there. Same with UPS. Not 1,000. 250. And these aren’t jobs that will necessarily move. They’re creating new offices with new positions. The Bank of England report wasn’t actually all bad news. Tucked away were some paragraphs outlining the opportunities that Brexit offers. Strangely, these got hardly any coverage because the media is predominantly interested in reporting apocalyptic bad news rather than anything which points to any optimism about Brexit.
Most political resignations are intrinsically sad. Whatever the circumstances they are a tragedy for the person who’s resigning. One moment you’re one of the most important people in the country. The next, you’re, well, someone who used to be someone. I first met Michael Fallon in March 1983. I worked on his by-election campaign in Darlington. I was still at university and it was the first important election I had worked on. I’ve never been a close friend of his but have always felt a certain bond with him because of Darlington. I always thought he should have been promoted way before he was and I think he’s been a good minister wherever he has served. As I write this only a few hours after his resignation, I’m still not quite clear why he’s gone. Surely not just due to touching Julia Hartley-Brewer’s knee fifteen years ago. Whatever the reasons I hope that he doesn’t wallow in the sadness of what’s happened and that his personal journey over the next few months isn’t too difficult. Politicians are as human as the rest of us and at times like this we would do well to remember that.